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A trove of looted artifacts, five years after BLM raids in Utah

Years after defendants surrendered their collections, the feds are caring for artifacts bound for repatriation with tribes.

First Published Jun 29 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 30 2014 01:34 pm

One of the nation’s most extensive and valuable troves of American Indian artifacts fills a nondescript warehouse in the Salt Lake Valley, where federal curators are preserving pottery, cradle boards, projectile points, hand tools, pendants, grinding stones and thousands of other items illegally removed from ancestral Puebloan sites in the Four Corners region.

When the Bureau of Land Management raided the homes of antiquities collectors in Blanding and other towns in 2009, it was bent on ending the looting of ancient graves and ruins on the Colorado Plateau.

At a glance

What is NAGPRA?

Passed in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federal agencies to document American Indian artifacts and human remains in their possession. The law establishes a process for returning certain items to tribes that claim cultural affiliation with them.

The Bureau of Land Management is now consulting with 28 Southwestern tribes that have potential claims on the more than 6,000 artifacts the agency seized as a result of a lengthy undercover investigation into an illegal trading network centered in Blanding.

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But in the process the federal agency took on a gargantuan task — caring for and documenting more than 6,000 objects that had been stripped of their archaeological context.

Now, BLM officials are finding permanent homes for these artifacts, hoping to send many back to any of 28 modern Southwest tribes that can show a cultural affiliation to specific items. The rest could wind up in museums, although their scientific value has been hopelessly compromised along with the archaeological sites from where they were stolen.

"The unprecedented task we have is trying to make some right out of it, how to restore what we can to Native Americans, how can we make some educational value so these kinds of things don’t happen again, how can we stress the damage that has been done," said Shelley Smith, BLM’s deputy Utah state director for natural resources.

‘These are holy objects’ » In the five years since the raids, just one of the artifacts has been repatriated — a sacred "Dilzini Gaan" headdress made from painted wood and cloth.

Its distinctive features indicated a strong cultural affiliation with the White Mountain Apache, who reside on Arizona’s Fort Apache Reservation, according to a posting last year on the Federal Register.

"There are these PhDs out there to tell us in scientific terms what these are, but you have to be Apache to know what you are talking about. The elders have identified these, including the material and the wood, and where it came from," said Ramon Riley, White Mountain’s cultural resources director.

Last year, BLM officials returned the headdress to Fort Apache and tribal authorities laid it to rest it in a special ceremony.

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"Anything we repatriate we don’t put on display. We retire them," Riley said. "Everything in the circle of life is alive for us. These are holy objects. We pray and put them away."

The headdress was also connected to White Mountain by a famous image created in the early 1900s at Fort Apache by the ethnographic photographer Edward Curtis. The photograph shows Apache medicine men wearing a headdress much like the one BLM agents seized from the home of a Blanding defendant.

Officials do not know where that person obtained it, although Riley believes it had been looted.

‘Where it started’ » In Blanding and surrounding counties, residents once openly gathered artifacts and such collecting was considered a legitimate family activity. The laws changed in the 1970s, criminalizing the removal of artifacts from tribal and federal land.

But looting persisted, to the dismay of archaeologists and American Indians. Graves were a favorite target because they tend to yield intact objects buried with the dead.

The point of the "Operation Cerberus" investigation was not to jail looters, BLM officials said, but to rein in the illegal antiquities trade.

"You can’t put [an artifact] back, but it is forever out of the black market. This effort was to start unraveling it where it started," said Smith, an archaeologist who served as BLM’s Canyon Country district manager at the time of the 2009 raids.

Around 2006, federal agents recruited a Utah collector to go undercover and secretly record illegal transactions and conversations with several collectors from Blanding, Monticello and Santa Fe, N.M., as well as Durango, Colo., antiquities dealer Vern Crites.

Some of Blanding’s most prominent citizens were charged in a series of prosecutions that gnaw at this community to this day. Two defendants, including physician James Redd, and the undercover operative, Ted Gardiner, took their own lives.

No one served jail time, but defendants were required to hand over their entire collections.

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